A Birthday Party without Guests
A Birthday Party without Guests
Reading Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party when a young man of twenty-two, I noticed an acerbity of tone and bitterness of language as a whole that rang familiar, while I felt unable to say why it had such a family touch or even sting.
Much too immersed in study craze at the time and led by a professor who never unveiled his inner self to us until his coming out in the early 1990s – when I had long since left his circle – I did not manage to connect the atmosphere emanating from the words on the page to many similar moments of family life I had experienced myself. It was only much later again when I talked to more and more people about our respective family lives that it dawned on me that birthday parties in the inner circle more often than not became occasions when taboos otherwise slavishly kept were suddenly broken, when people normally tongue-tied to say the least about their inner lives held back no longer.
While my memory is pretty exact in terms of much I have witnessed I fail to recall having watched any TV images of the 40th birthday parade celebrating the socialist régime of GDR on 7th October 1989.
It was a Saturday, as an Internet research on the events of that date shows me.
Actually, I spend the day sitting in a minibus “controlling” the change of drivers every two hours on our 24-hour trip from Rom back to Münster in Westphalia, once termed the “Nordic Rome”.
The day before, the tiniest majority possible in a group of eight, four ayes versus three noes plus one abstention, that is, had been in favour of doing in one go what a week before everybody had agreed to interrupt even twice by spending Saturday night in the Bavarian Alps and Sunday night at Assisi in a hostel run by Franciscans monks and nuns.
So we neither followed the official events of the day in East Berlin, nor did we find out about the progress of the upheaval east of the Berlin Wall.
The atmosphere to say the least was on the brink of boiling over when the next morning after stopping for breakfast at one of the driver’s homes in Siegerland two members of the majority let on that their principal reason to vote for that drastic measure had been their wish to put their feet under their respective mothers’ tables for a last Sunday lunch before again attending university on Monday.
Some time later, back in the car, I simply said, “Oh, having the majority does not mean you are also always reasonable.” This comment earned me lasting contempt, and in the general mood of democracy winning over socialism I may have been misunderstood as someone doubting the majority rule as such.
Trained even then as I still am in the complicated German electoral system but also aware of how differently such matters are dealt with in other European countries such as France, Great Britain, and Italy, I had no chance later on to explain that respecting a large minority is perhaps more helpful to re-establish unity than paying lip-service to the majority that is a clear but not an overwhelming one.
That small group of eight never became friends again in the months and years ahead we would still live in the same residence hall. Most of my fellow travellers I have not met for over thirty years. All the same, the time spent on the way to, in, and from Rome has become an important piece in the mosaics of my life since the journey began on the very day in 1989 when Foreign Secretary Hans-Dietrich Genscher was unable to finish his first sentence on the balcony of the German Embassy in Prague, trying to tell the thousands of emigrants assembled in the garden that they would be able to board a train for West Germany the same evening.
As a group, we witnessed TV images in our Alpine hostel before watching a film based on Graham Greene ’s novel Monsignor Quijote taking us back into Spain under Franco. I was aware of the parallels between the film and the situation in the GDR, but even then this was not a majority topic in the group so I let it pass.
A twelve-month later, the 41st anniversary of the GDR did not take place; or, all had been done not to have to celebrate this date since it was on Wednesday, 3rd October 1990, that the German re-unification had become official. Since that date, there has been only one German state, so whoever may have wanted to celebrate would no longer have had any occasion to do so.
Less so even than a loved one whose birthday is often commemorated, GDR had so quickly been superseded that barring a few diehards who clinked glasses in secret – perhaps for having cleverly survived the cleansing process – there was no-one who even gave a public speech that day.
Much has changed since then. Still if you sought to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the GDR you would have all the uphill work of preparing any other party, finding a venue, issuing written invitations, cooking a meal, making a cake, and preparing activities, perhaps a treasure hunt for missing GDR mementoes in one of the former functionaries’ private garden.
All this would have to be done more or less according to the principle that everyone is in the know, while there is no public word being said about it. The weather was great today, cold but sunny, the first of the few who had agreed to come despite its being the autumn recess rang up at ten to say there was an illness in the family. The seventy-year-old having lived in inner exile for thirty years could not complain, things had been against them from the start, so they started to admire the decorations and to look forward to having a truly savoury lunch of genuine fish and GDR fries. When the house had also been decorated outside with only the flag missing, neighbours started to congratulate, while the wait for the only other guests seemed interminable. It is another version of Samuel Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot, set in a different place and in another historical context.
As almost foreseen, these guests never materialized, just as in the big picture the only commemorations of the other German state officially talked about relate the GDR to the year 1989, which saw also the beginning of its end.
Leer, 7 October 2019
P.S. Interestingly, the headlines about this anniversary making it to the front page of our local daily concern current politicians in East Germany back-biting each other about how to talk of GDR. There are those who avoid to mention that its régime was one of many injustices, one built on the rocks of informing on one’s comrades rather than on human rights. Others, however, who insist on this record do not reach the hearts of the people either since they appear to take away from those that continue to care for their lost past the homeliness that living in the GDR may have meant for everyone who toed the line, something called “Ostalgia”.
Leer, 10 October 2019, revised 3 October 2021
Dear readers of my blog,
it is quite different not to “write to the moment” in the sense that I need to wait for the impulse to be able to make my fingers move on the keyboard towards composing another blog post. It is simply that concentrating on compiling materials – text and image wise – without the need to think of how to arrange them in the last resort has liberated the machinations of my mind. At the very least, this process resembles the preparations of a lesson where looking at certain materials in details such as that I may not have seen for ages but which have somehow remained locked in my mind for as long makes me think at once of how to present them in class by means of which methods.
So for the 72nd anniversary of the foundation of the German Democratic Republic I chose from my digital archives the text you may have read before turning to this post as a “Historical Prologue”, and it may not be a surprise for you that Oscar Wilde does not figure there. At the same time, the year 1949 was an important one for his surviving son – Vyvyan Holland (1886-1967) – because it was the last he earned any royalties from the estate of his father. When in 1950 he had to pay the taxes for the previous year, he was unable to do so since his income had come to nought. It was then only that apart from De Profundis another edition of which had appeared in 1949 that he seriously thought of bringing out and thus contribute to the family’s income – his son Merlin was by then five years old – those works that had been prepared twice by Oscar Wilde and that apart from The Picture of Dorian Gray had only appeared once in his lifetime.
In the political sphere, the year 1949 also saw the emergence of the Republic of Ireland, so that the two biggest of the British Isles had moved apart a further step – only to approach each other once more in the process of the European Economic Community which they joined at the same date, in January 1973, that is. The changed status of the Republic since then is best reflected in the fact that the UK is now outside the EU with Ireland being supported by all the other member states in what conflicts remain to be resolved.
With Wilde having entered the public domain and Ireland having entered the community of sovereign nations in Europe in 1949 – neither the one nor the other had become completely independent of either the family or the common history with the United Kingdom.
A declaration of independence is not the same thing as feeling free from family or historical bonds, so that even fifty years after the death of Oscar Wilde or roughly thirty years after the Civil War in Ireland what bound Vyvyan Holland personally to his father on the one hand and and on the other hand what bound the Republic politically to the United Kingdom was all but relegated to the past. In particular, if you had to make money by writing and the only material that had proved to be food for publishers was either the scandal your father had gone through or what your father had left unfinished on his death.
On the Irish national level, however, things were a bit more complex and complicated though with Eamon de Valera, now 68, still around and very active in the 1950s, the Republic was clearly connected to the more recent past by the man who incarnated the move from the Free State to the Republic of Ireland.
Since writing a blog is a long-term project with regular or sometimes less than regular posts, I can assure you that there is not yet a list of books and topics I am going to write about in the future, but one subject that is sure to be talked about is the centenary of both the Free State and the publication of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses on 2 February 2022 – all linked with the part Oscar Wilde played posthumously in the history as well as the literary history of Ireland.
Wishing you a nice weekend,
stay hale and healthy,
Jörg W. Rademacher
A Farewell to News from Munich
Even before the German general elections of 26 September 2021, I had decided to talk about next to fifty years of reading the serious German daily with still the largest circulation: Süddeutsche Zeitung. Münchner Neueste Nachrichten. Published in Munich, it duly arrived in my parents’ home every day even before they subscribed to the local daily, so that before I knew what happened in Unna, Westphalia, a small town bordering the urban Ruhr area and other, more rural districts, I was well aware of political and other events that took place in Munich as well as in the world at large as covered by SZ, which is the acronym it is known by.
While I do not recall when exactly I began also to read the paper, I am sure that in September 1969 when the Christian Democrats first lost the chancellorship I only accompanied my parents to the polling-station, then still a pub, Gaststätte zum Morgentor, but did not follow any reports in the media, picking up instead shouting in the living-room when I was supposed to have been asleep.
With hindsight, I associate such shouting with my father expressing his joy at the incoming election results, while when pondering the circumstances at greater length I cannot be sure that my parents even owned something like a TV set at the time. My maternal grandmother only died in 1971, leaving, among other things, her black and white TV to us, so that my father may well have listened to election results being reported by the radio in September 1969 – an old-fashioned wireless-cum-record-player built at a time when radios still formed part of the furniture of a living-room. Unlike the TV, the radio was still there when I had to sift my father’s books and papers in 2017, just as he was still subscribed to SZ until some time after my mother had passed on in 2020.
While I never became a regular subscriber to SZ, nor ever wrote a single line for this paper or found myself reviewed more than once, it has remained a part of my daily life ever since the opening of the Olympic Games in Munich in the late summer of 1972. In a way, it still is, although since reading the book by Birk Meinhardt, Wie ich meine Zeitung verlor. Eine Jahrebuch, in English: “How I lost my paper. A book of years”, I have begun to be more choosy at the railway news stands I frequent in either Leer or Norden, or, more rarely, at Central Station Emden.
As in other things in life when something has lost its innocence, when, for example, a scandal rocks either your pet football club or your political party, or when the paper you have fancied for part of or almost all your life there may occur an event that, for instance, makes a long-serving journalist want to lose all contact with his former home, it was only the last straw when I read Meinhardt’s account in early October 2020.
This book is peppered with episodes that made Meinhardt gradually lose what he had believed to be unshakeable: his trust in the integrity of the free press in the West.
Born in the German Democratic Republic in 1959, so three years my senior, he had been a member of the State Socialist Party (SED) when he joined the press and became a sports reporter. No turncoat, he admitted to have been a committed party member when being interviewed for a post in Frankfurt as well as in Munich in the early 1990s. In Frankfurt, they would have taken him on had he simply stated to have been an opportunist waiting for his chance. This is something he did not want to do, so he was happy to have been accepted on his own terms in Munich.
It was only very late in the day, after a career both as sports reporter and reporter at large covering subjects he was free to choose that he gradually became aware of control mechanisms in the German press – not only in his own paper – that he had known all too well from his GDR past. While wary of formulating theories of conspiracy, he had to acknowledge after a long wait and many checks with friends and former colleagues, which, of course, he was shy to do in any but a personal way, that his idea of how the free press was working did not correspond to the reality he was up against.
It is tempting to sum up and even analyse his book at greater length, but that you may do on your own, whereas it is my interest to show here that – albeit episodic and sporadic – my own direct contacts with the paper did not augur well, nor correspond to the over-all impression I still have of its philosophy and individual journalists. At the same time, I am glad never to have been too closely associated with the spirit that informed at least some of the journalists’ work.
It is here that my own very specific literary interests, rarely if ever focussed on by the paper, provide hints to what Birk Meinhardt has had to experience the hard way. In November1993 when after publishing my first book I did a reading tour organized on my own I also presented it at Words’s Worth, Schellingstraße, Munich. On arrival, I was told in apologetic terms that the local news desk had bungled the announcement of the reading. Doing readings of well-known English writers in Munich on a regular basis, the booksellers told me that this mistake was not the first of its kind. Nevertheless, I was content with the turnout and the conversations I had both before, during and after the reading.
I was used to that sort of negligence from Münster, Westphalia, where it did help, however, if you knew the person responsible and if you spoke to them whenever there was a reading or concert or exhibition. It did surprise me, though, that a paper of national and international acclaim seemed to have the same problem. In passim I should mention that as a reader I had been unable to spot this since the paper had always had several editions, only the night and local edition containing such news about forthcoming events in Munich.
In the year 2000 when I was looking forward to the appearance of my illustrated life of Oscar Wilde and the translation of the first-ever uncensored text of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the biography even to be issued by a publisher based in Munich, I had the wild idea of being someone they might consider the right person to write an article for the weekend edition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Wilde’s death. I remember it was a bright September day, the centenary being more than two months off, and I don’t usually pick up the phone easily to ring up people unknown to me. Bolstered by a success in that vein dating from the 30 November 1999 when I had rang a local bookseller to ask whether they would have me for a reading on the centenary in Münster in 2000, which, in fact, was due to come off on 16 November, I really fancied myself in a good position at least to be able to approach the commissioning editor. If things turned out well on a conversational level, I might even venture to tell him that we had both enjoyed the same scholarship when at university.
As it happened, I never even heard the commissioning editor’s normal speaking voice, such was his unnerved reaction to his secretary’s question whether he was willing to talk to me. “Tell him, the commemorative article has already arrived.” were the words she let me hear for myself uttered at the top of his voice. Later, I was told that this gentleman’s temper was all but calculable, and it did not surprise me that neither my biography of Wilde nor that of James Joyce that appeared in 2004 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the historical Bloomsday were ever reviewed by the paper. Incidentally, in 1996, I was to have read an unfavourable one of my translation of David Pierce’s study James Joyce’s Ireland which – according to the publisher who went out of business immediately after paying the translation fee – the literary editor had been willing to suppress following a telephone call. I had read the review beforehand because its author did not mince his words – we were at university together and have never completely lost contact – so I am sure that the editor had allowed the publisher to see it, too.
Taken together, these two or three non-events do not tell you much. To me, they only showed that the press cannot be counted on if you need them, something I was to learn at greater length when studying the scandals triggered by Oscar Wilde first linked to his novel, then linked to his private life or lives. They only become little fragments of a bigger picture once you have read Meinhardt’s book.
Here are the bibliographical details: "Wie ich meine Zeitung verlor. Ein Jahrebuch" (Das Neue Berlin, 15 Euro) nennt es Birk Meinhardt
You can find more information on it in German:
https://www.br.de/kultur/birk-meinhardt-wie-ich-meine-zeitung-verlor-sz-medienkritik-100.html (Access: 2 October 2021)
Another, outright hostile review can be found here:
In any case, it is a book set in the context of thirty years of the ongoing process of German reunification, which is still not complete and which, as the recent general election has shown, is far from having reconciled the different styles of life and of remembering in East and West. Ireland with a history of partition now in its centenary year is a good example of how long it takes, for example, in certain families to unearth the grandfather’s part in the Civil War. Having just read a life of Erskine Childers (1870-1922), which I am going to talk about soon, I felt the same soreness of feeling that frequently arises when I consider German history at greater length.
Having lost my paper, too, in a sense, actually it is two, for I discontinued a subscription to the local East Frisian paper in late 2019, I am at long last free to enjoy whatever I would like to read at a given moment, so that last week I bought the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung, dating from 1780, only to remember that the only review that captured what I had sought to express in my life of Oscar Wilde had been published in the literary section of that paper. The praise received there, however, did not sound genuine any more, when I got a message from the author, no Swiss, a German, who wanted to know how he could approach the commissioning editor of my publisher. In other words, he wanted me to find him a publisher for his own book projects. I fail to recall what I did, perhaps I did not react after all, finding this approach altogether distasteful. Needless to say that I never heard from that man again. In fact, I prefer to be criticized by people who also published in the same series for having misunderstood what I had to do to being praised in order to have to return a favour I had not asked for. This may be harmful for business – but then such is not the business I am interested in.
Jörg W. Rademacher, 3 October 2021